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What’s the difference between “jail” and “prison”?
You were arrested for a crime and heard that it is punishable by custody in county jail. Is jail the same as prison?
If not, what’s the difference?
State prisons are operated by state governments and usually house inmates for over a year (and sometimes as long as “life”). Jails, by contrast, are typically operated by local government entities and house inmates for shorter sentences, usually up to one year.
The main differences between jail and prison are set forth in the table below.
Trait or Feature
Local government agencies
Federal or state governments
Length of stay
Usually up to one year
Usually more than one year (and as long as life)
Smaller than prisons
Larger than jails
Nature of offenders
Less violent and dangerous offenders (typically misdemeanor offenders)
More violent and dangerous offenders (typically felony offenders)
Once you complete a jail term, you may be subject to probation as a form of post-release supervision.
2. What is prison?
As with a jail, a state prison is a building used to confine people convicted of a criminal offense.4 A prison is often referred to as a “penitentiary.”
Prisons are generally larger than jails and are operated by state governments.
While jails usually house inmates convicted of misdemeanors, prisons often house people convicted of felony offenses.5
Prison sentences are generally longer than jail sentences and can range from just over a year to life.
Since prisons house inmates for an extended amount of time, they are usually more developed and comfortable than jails. Longer sentences also mean that prisons may offer a variety of different educational programs (for example, GED preparation courses).
Many prisons will have various levels of security, like:
medium security, and
The general rule is that the more severe the crime you commit, the higher the security level that you will be placed in.
If you are put in either minimum or medium security, then you will likely enter one of the following near the end of your time in the prison system:
a halfway house,
a work release program, and/or
3. Is there a difference between state prison and federal prison?
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.